Diving into the Unknown

As I stared at the dull ceiling from my bed at Holy Spirit Hospital, my mind was in a tizzy. It was the 23rd of May, 2003 when my world came crashing down. I was a 40 year old, successful entrepreneur, now diagnosed with Manic Depressive illness (now called Bipolar Disorder). "I am now mentally ill" - this thought was shattering. What would happen to my career now? What would my colleagues and friends say if they came to know about this? That week in hospital was probably the most traumatic period in my life.

I had multiple episodes of severe depression growing up, as is typical in many bipolar patients where symptoms begin from age 18 to 25. However, it was over the two years prior to diagnosis that my symptoms began to ring alarm bells to my discerning sister, Tejal. Some days, I had grandiose plans of changing the world and my energy levels were sky high. I once woke up in the middle of the night to write poetry that made me cry. This phase is known as rapid cycling or back and forth change in moods between mania and depression.

Since my symptoms sounded like those of depression, my physician put me onto antidepressants. That set me off into full-blown mania. Tejal pleaded with me to seek a professional's help but I was in denial mode as is the case with most of my tribe in the initial stages. During mania, one's judgment gets badly impaired. I kept insisting that I knew perfectly well what I was doing and resisted any idea of seeking help.

After much cajoling we landed up at a Psychologist's clinic at Jaslok Hospital. On hearing my symptoms, in one minute flat she said, "He needs to consult a Psychiatrist". We rushed directly to one Tejal knew of, Dr Snehal Mehta. Throughout the journey to the doctor I was blabbering nonstop. I was so exhausted by my antics that I fell asleep, slumping on my Doctor's desk. The Doctor right away diagnosed my case as Manic Depression and we were off to the Hospital.

At the crossroads of life

What happened thereafter was this: The heavy medication which was a cocktail of mood stabilizers, tranquilizers and anti-psychotics made life more miserable. My restlessness and irritability was at its peak. What happens initially is that the side effects of meds hit you hard while the benefits take many months to kick in. So, daytime sleepiness, lethargy, disorientation, skin rashes, hyperthyroidism (in my case), dizziness, hand tremors so bad I could not write properly… my woes were endless. These gradually became more manageable. After I was discharged a week later, I thought being back at home would help me calm down: that didn't happen. I used to sleep for sixteen hours a day and still feel weary. Also, the implication of what I was in for began to sink in. Uncertainty became a life partner.

Amidst all this, my confidence took a huge hit. There was fear at the back of the mind that I would let my business clients down, for what underlined our success was our high dependability. In a few months after being diagnosed, my illness had its first casualty. I had to wind up my enterprise, which I had built from scratch over fourteen years. In addition to the financial setback, I became depressed. It was as if I was suddenly directionless.

The lack of focus and concentration prevented clarity of thought. This resulted in an ill judged career shift - one to life insurance and financial advisory. After eight years, I realized that I had lost my passion and I took to writing. From my interactions I have learnt that career instability is a bugbear many bipolar individuals have to live with.

I got married within that first year of my diagnosis. The marriage was an outcome of a Matrimonial advert in a national daily. I had already confided everything to my to be wife and even took her to my Psychiatrist so that she could seek clarifications. All the same, the initial years of our marriage were dogged by friction, mistrust and dissatisfaction. Stable relationships are crucial to managing bipolar disorder. I resolved to turn my marriage around as I had begun to get a grip on my condition by then. And the turnaround did happen, slowly but surely. Today we are among the happier couples around! Our lovely daughter completes the family. She does not really comprehend the seriousness of my condition because my behavior is now as normal as anybody else's.

I have had just one episode of mania again in these fourteen years since the first blow up. That was in 2008. High energy levels, less need for sleep, verbosity, goal driven activity, over confidence, recklessness, over spending and heightened creativity were the red flags we became wary of. These signify the onset of mania. I had to live with longer spans of depression than with mania, which meant demotivation, lack of confidence, lethargy and poor focus.

My story set me free

If I have found stability and calmness I have many things to thank for. My Doctor, my family, colleagues and friends who stood by me all the time. My Doctor though, credits me for my discipline and self-belief. I have strived hard to regain a semblance of peace. My path has included yoga, meditation, creative visualization, writing as therapy, regular exercise and of course sticking to my treatment, which might be lifelong. My spiritual pursuit also made me more philosophical and helped take in ups and downs with equanimity. I then began confiding in close fri

ends and colleagues about my condition and thankfully, every single one of them were highly supportive. When I began blogging in 2012, I saw it as an opportunity to reach out to a global audience. This led to the formation of BipolarIndia.com, India's first and only such community for peer support. We have now gone offline with regular meets. Writing my book based on my recovery was a cathartic journey, which helped, set me free. It has gratifyingly inspired a turnaround in a few readers' lives. If I look back at my life, I am probably more fulfilled today than I ever was. I don't walk alone anymore.

Vijay Nallawala, Author, Columnist, Storytelling & Branding Coach, Mental Wellness Catalyst.